No vote on mixed-use zoning yet

Published 1:45 pm Thursday, March 10, 2022

Smithfield’s Planning Commission still hasn’t made its recommendation on whether to allow mixed-use developments in town.

On March 8, they again tabled a proposed change to the town’s zoning ordinance that would replace the currently unused “planned corporate office and research” zoning designation with planned mixed-use development, or PMUD.

The commissioners have been debating the proposed change since December. The new zoning option would allow single-family and multi-family homes, bed-and-breakfast lodging, retail stores and other uses to coexist on a single parcel.

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The idea originated when a consultant assisting the town with redoing its comprehensive plan suggested gradually transforming the South Church Street corridor into a denser, more walkable area.

It became controversial after a group of residents – and a member of the Planning Commission – acknowledged the change would also allow former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph W. Luter III to file a rezoning application for his proposed “Grange at 10Main” mixed-use development at the western border of the town’s historic district.

Luter acquired the 50-plus acres for his proposed development by purchasing and razing the former Little’s Supermarket and 1730s-era Pierceville homestead at the corner of Route 10 and Main Street in 2020. While he has yet to apply for rezoning or permits, his preliminary plans call for a 13,300-square-foot permanent farmers market, a hotel, three- and four-story apartment complexes with a total of 225 units, 45 single-family homes and duplexes, 33,350 square feet of commercial space and more than 1,000 parking spaces.

The original draft of the proposed ordinance change would allow a maximum height of 60 feet as a “by right” use in PMUD zoning. “By right” means a developer who successfully petitioned the town to rezone his or her land to PMUD wouldn’t need additional permission to construct four- and five-story buildings.

Another version created by Commissioner Dr. Thomas Pope following a Feb. 23 work session strikes the 60-foot “by right” provision and would instead require a special use permit for any structure over 35 feet.

Pope offered during the Feb. 23 meeting to draft his own version of the ordinance with a series of edits he’d proposed. His version also sets a minimum parcel size of 20 acres, up from the original five, and require land uses to conform “as closely as possible” to existing zoning regulations.

The “as closely as possible” provision replaces language that would have mandated a minimum side yard setback of 10 feet and a maximum 2.0 floor area ratio for residential and commercial structures alike.

A setback refers to the minimum distance between structures, while floor area ratio, or FAR, measures the square footage of a proposed building compared to the square footage of the parcel on which it is located. FAR is calculated by dividing the gross floor area of all buildings on a lot by the area of that lot.

Instead of relying on the fixed setbacks and floor area ratio calculation, Pope’s version of the ordinance would require developers to meet existing density standards for each proposed use. Under this change, a residential PMUD component, depending on the type of housing proposed, could be held to the three-unit-per-acre standard in the town’s suburban residential zoning regulations.

Additional changes he’s proposed include requiring a commercial component in all PMUD zoning and requiring at least 10% of the gross acreage to be landscaped green space – with no more than 50% of said green space located in wetlands, stream valleys, slopes greater than 30 feet, drainage easements or in a 100-year flood plain.

Pope’s version would also make a traffic impact study mandatory, not optional, and require that any overlay district requirements – such as those imposed in Smithfield’s historic district – supersede what is allowable under PMUD.

Planning Commission Chairman Charles Bryan, however, wasn’t in agreement with all of Pope’s proposed edits.

The idea behind PMUD, Bryan argued, was to “give us more flexibility in zoning parts of the town.”

“I still think that some of the changes are limiting flexibility and I think some are too restrictive,” Bryan said.

The original ordinance had also required at least 10% of a mixed-use development’s gross acreage to be landscaped open space. At the March 8 meeting, Pope asked the commissioners to consider increasing this minimum, however, Bryan argued a higher percentage would make a significant portion of a parcel unable to be developed.

Pope and Bryan then both called for further discussion on the types of signage allowable in mixed-use developments. The originally proposed ordinance includes only a reference to sign regulations in Article 10 of the town’s zoning ordinance.